The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights

Post originally Published February 9, 2024 || Last Updated February 9, 2024

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The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Be Flexible with Dates and Destinations

The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights

Being flexible with your travel dates and destinations is one of the best ways to score super cheap flights. While it's tempting to lock in specific dates if you're trying to use vacation days or coordinate with others, staying open-minded can lead to huge savings.

I've found some of my best deals by tweaking my dates by a day or two in either direction. Airlines use complex algorithms to set fares, so prices can fluctuate wildly even for nearby dates. Scott's Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes recommends searching in a 7-day window around your ideal dates. I like to search week-by-week to uncover the cheapest month to visit my desired destination.

Travel during shoulder seasons when demand is lower. For example, aim for late spring over summer in Europe, or fall instead of winter for beach vacations. Pay attention to big events or holidays that drive up prices, and avoid traveling right before or after.
Consider nearby airports too, especially if you live in a major metro area. I once saved over $350 by flying out of an airport one hour away instead of the main one in my city. Parking and transportation costs ate up some of the savings, but I still came out well ahead.

Apply the same flexibility to your destination. Look at a map and research alternate airports within a few hours' drive. For domestic trips, expand your search to the entire region instead of just one city. I've discovered great deals to smaller cities I'd never considered otherwise.

The wanderlust experts at Nomadic Matt recommend picking regions over specific places, especially for international trips where one flight can get you to multiple countries. Focus on Western Europe, Southeast Asia or South America instead of a single dream destination.

Finally, don't be afraid to think totally outside the box. Consider locations you've never visited before that offer great value. Off-the-beaten-path destinations often have much lower demand, leading to cheaper airfare. And once you get there, costs for lodging, food and activities are usually lower too.

What else is in this post?

  1. The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Be Flexible with Dates and Destinations
  2. The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Use Flight Search Engines Wisely
  3. The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Check Airline Sales and Error Fares
  4. The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Sign Up for Fare Alerts
  5. The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Fly at Less Busy Times
  6. The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Consider Connecting Flights
  7. The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Leverage Loyalty Programs
  8. The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Pay with Points

The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Use Flight Search Engines Wisely

Flight search engines like Kayak, Skyscanner and Google Flights are invaluable tools for finding cheap airfare. But to get the most out of them, you need to use them wisely. These meta search sites scour the web to aggregate flight options and prices, but they each have quirks in how they operate. Here are expert tips to find the best deals.

First, understand that no single search engine includes every airline and flight. For example, Southwest and Allegiant don't participate in most sites. And some foreign carriers like Air India may have limited visibility. Always check airline sites directly as well, advises Airfarewatchdog founder George Hobica. Sign up for email alerts so you get notified of sales.
Configure your searches thoughtfully. Most engines default to round-trip pricing, but you may find one-way fares are half the cost. Don’t limit yourself to nonstop flights either. An inexpensive connecting flight can mean huge savings if you don’t mind the extra stop.

Pay close attention to airports covered in a search area. Some engines let you select “New York City” but only include JFK and Newark. Add LaGuardia, Westchester and Islip airports to see all options. Expand your geographic radius too – nearby major hubs can offer hidden deals.
Mix and match search sites to increase your odds of finding the lowest fare. Each has different algorithmic displays that showcase unique results. According to Scott's Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes, checking both Google Flights and Momondo could surface the cheapest flight that neither showed on their own.
Use advanced features like flexible date grids and price graphs to pinpoint the cheapest travel windows. But recognize even the smartest AI has blind spots. Always scan results yourself and tweak dates, nearby airports and stopovers. The engine might miss a logical flight option easily identified by the human eye.
Take full advantage of filtering and alerts to receive customized updates when prices drop or sales get posted. Turn on email and push notifications so you never miss a window of opportunity.

The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Check Airline Sales and Error Fares

Savvy travelers know that airline sales and error fares offer some of the best opportunities to score incredibly cheap flights. But you have to be vigilant and act fast to snag these deals before they disappear.

Airlines frequently run sales on routes with low demand or excess inventory. They seem to pop up at random, so checking carrier sites multiple times per week is key. Sign up for email alerts from your favorite airlines and monitor their social media closely. These sales usually last just 72 hours or over a weekend, for travel within a couple months. Off-season routes like Minnesota to Cancun in January are prime sale targets.

Scott's Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes recommends always having a shortlist of dream destinations you’d love to visit soon if only airfare was affordable. That way when an airline like Delta offers Atlanta to Rome for $499 roundtrip, you can instantly grab the deal.

Error fares represent true unicorns in flight deals - when an airline accidentally offers absurdly low prices, like $99 roundtrip from Los Angeles to Hawaii. IT glitches, human input mistakes, and complicated revenue management software can trigger these magical fares. They vanish within hours once caught, so you have to buy immediately via online booking.

How do you catch this flight deal lightning in a bottle? The Flight Deal and Secret Flying focus exclusively on mistake fares, sending instant alerts by email and app. However, their free tiers limit city options, so premium memberships unlock the full firehose.

Secret Flying founder Chris Myden says a common error leaving off a 3 or 4 digit in a fare, like $292 instead of $1292 from Dallas to Tokyo, opens a brief window with 90% discounts. He recommends having multiple payment methods pre-loaded to finalize checkout in seconds for the best chance at scoring an elusive unicorn fare.
My friend Mark once snagged a $120 roundtrip ticket from Chicago to Phoenix, allowing him to escape a brutal Midwest winter for some desert golf. He happened to be browsing Southwest's website the moment a mistake fare popped up, letting him book a last minute trip that would've normally cost over $400.

I also capitalized on an error fare I stumbled across in Google Flights for $560 roundtrip from New York to Milan, enabling me to fulfill my lifelong dream of visiting Italy. The normal cost for this itinerary was $1200+ for the dates I wanted. I took the travel gods’ gift without hesitation.

The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Sign Up for Fare Alerts

Signing up for airfare alerts is one of the smartest tactics you can use to keep your finger on the pulse of flight deals. Every major airline and travel booking site offers customizable notifications when prices drop or sales get announced for specific routes. Configuring these email and push alerts takes just a few minutes but pays dividends by automatically flagging potential savings.
I recommend setting up alerts for dream destinations you hope to visit soon. Even if current prices are too high, you'll get notified immediately once airfare becomes affordable. Most alerts expire within 6 months, so you can adjust the travel window accordingly.

Begin by establishing alerts on your go-to airline websites for nonstop routes from your local airports. For example, I live in Los Angeles and watch for deals on Delta from LAX to New York and American Airlines from LAX to Miami since those are hubs.

Expand your airline alerts to include one-stop itineraries which sometimes price out cheaper. Don't limit yourself to U.S. airlines either - many international carriers like British Airways and Air Canada offer competitive fares from major American cities.
Beyond airline sites, leverage flight aggregators like Google Flights, Kayak and Hopper which compile options across hundreds of carriers worldwide. Google Flights has a Price Tracking feature that graphs historical airfare patterns and advises whether prices are high, typical or low for your route.

You can also tailor Google Flight alerts by region if your destination is flexible. For instance, set a watch for flights to Western Europe without specifying a city to catch discounts as they emerge across different countries.
For error fares and flash sales, Secret Flying and The Flight Deal are invaluable resources. Both provide SMS and app notifications the moment ultra-cheap mistake prices or 72-hour sales get discovered. However, these services carry a modest membership fee to unlock full functionality.
The key is customizing your alerts across airlines, search engines and deal sites to cast the widest net possible. Include nearby airport combinations too - I once scored an $89 fare by monitoring an alert I had set for alternate regional airports instead of just LAX.

The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Fly at Less Busy Times

Flying during off-peak times is one of the easiest ways to secure significant savings on airfare. By avoiding the crowds and high demand of peak travel periods, you can unlock discounted prices even when booking just a few weeks out. The key is understanding when the busy and slow seasons fall for different destinations and planning your trips accordingly.

Vacation hot spots like Hawaii, Cancún, and ski resorts all align with typical school breaks. Holiday weeks in December and February are jam-packed, so aim for early January or March/April respectively to find lower fares. For summer beach vacations, late May and early September provide warm weather with fewer families competing for seats.

Europe is swamped from June through August when school is out. But you can enjoy pleasant weather and fewer tourists in Spring and Fall shoulder seasons. Scott’s Cheap Flights suggests targeting mid-April through early June or mid-September through October for the old world. Avoid Easter week and fall breaks in Germany and the U.K. which spike demand.
When planning domestic trips, avoid Monday mornings and Friday afternoons which clog airports with business travelers. Leisure passengers find better rates mid-week. Departing on the 1st and 15th of the month is also sound strategy as fares jump before and after those payroll weeks.

Tracking historical fare data is hugely helpful for identifying seasonal travel patterns. Google Flights offers intuitive graphs showing precisely when prices spike and plummet throughout the year for any given route. This visual intelligence makes it easy to pick appropriate off-peak windows where airfare dips by hundreds of dollars.
I used this to my advantage when planning a December trip to Charleston to enjoy the holiday charms of this charming Southern city. Google Flights revealed that the first two weeks of December were half the price of later in the month. Flights dropped from $600 to $280 just by shifting my travel dates earlier into the off-season.

Avoiding busy events helps reduce costs too. When Indianapolis hosted the NCAA Final Four championship, I delayed my trip to that city by a couple weeks to skip the basketball crowds and scored airfare for $100 less than during the tourney mayhem.

The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Consider Connecting Flights

At first glance, nonstop flights seem like the holy grail – who wouldn’t want to minimize time spent in airports and reaching your destination as fast as possible? But don’t fall into the trap of only searching for direct options. Connecting flights can open up an array of money-saving possibilities if you don’t mind the extra stopover.

Booking two separate one-way itineraries is a common trick among seasoned travelers. Say you live in Denver and want to get to Miami. It may be $400 for the nonstop route on American Airlines. But you could fly Southwest from Denver to Atlanta for $100, then book a $125 Delta flight from Atlanta straight into Miami for a total of just $225. Yes, it adds an extra take-off and landing, but you slash your costs almost in half.
Connecting through a hub city for an international airline can lead to big savings too. When I was planning a trip to Asia, flying direct from San Francisco would have cost over $1000. But I discovered a fantastic $680 fare by booking United from San Francisco to Seoul, followed by a cheap intra-Asia flight on Korean Air to Bangkok. The Seoul layover gave me access to an Asian carrier's regional pricing I couldn't reach nonstop from the US.
Don't forget about positioning flights either - when you book a segment to or from the hub airport of a foreign carrier. Our family wanted to visit Australia over Christmas one year when rates from LAX were obscenely high. Rather than pay $1800 per ticket, we flew Southwest from LA to SFO for $59 each. This allowed us to then book much cheaper Qantas flights from its San Francisco hub to Sydney, at just $980 roundtrip. We saved almost $3000 by booking those positioning flights.

When using layovers to reduce costs, longer connections typically offer more options. I like to filter my flight searches to show options with layovers of 4-8 hours. This gives you time to explore the connecting airport’s amenities or even take a quick nap in the lounge. Some airlines like Turkish Airlines offer free hotel and tour packages on long layovers in Istanbul. The chance to briefly visit two cities for the price of one is a great perk.

The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Leverage Loyalty Programs

Loyalty programs seem antiquated, but they can unlock substantial savings if used strategically. With a bit of planning, you can accumulate enough points and miles for free flights and hotel nights.
Sign up for frequent flyer programs with any airline you take more than a couple trips per year on. They're all free to join and some will grant bonus miles just for enrolling. Even infrequent travelers should register for 1-2 programs since points don’t expire with most carriers nowadays.

Credit card churning can generate tens of thousands of points as sign up bonuses. However, this requires meticulous tracking of minimum spend requirements. Consumers carrying balances negate any rewards through crippling interest charges. Consider your financial temperament carefully.
Lookup award charts to understand how many miles various routes require in each program. Set a goal for accrual based on your typical airport and favorite destinations. miles. Then align your travel and credit card to start piling up points.
Leverage shopping portals like American's AAdvantage eShopping. You can earn 2-10 extra miles per dollar spent online across hundreds of retailers. United, Delta and Southwest have similar portals providing bonus miles for everyday purchases. Miles add up quickly ordering regularly from Walmart, Best Buy or Nike.

Book hotel stays through a chain’s website versus third parties. Most programs give 4-10X points compared to Expedia and don’t restrict earning on special rates. Caesars Rewards also offers 1000 tier credits for direct bookings, accelerating top status.
Remember to enter frequent flyer numbers when booking flights on any airline. You’ll earn miles for the trip plus retain tier qualifying metrics that influence upgrade priority. Don’t assume codeshares share numbers automatically either - always verify accounts are linked.
Look for bonuses on in-flight purchases too. Delta awards double miles for Wi-Fi and United triples miles on food and beverage. Even premium cabin passengers should consider buying something small to capitalize on accelerated earning. 200 extra miles takes you closer to award flights quicker.

The Secret Sauce: 10 Pro Tips for Finding the Cheapest Flights - Pay with Points

Using points and miles to pay for flights can unlock huge savings, but it takes a bit of strategy to maximize value. The first step is understanding that not all points are created equal. Airline miles have a fixed value for award bookings, usually around 1-1.5 cents per mile for economy and 2-3 cents for business class. However, flexible programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards points can be worth 2-4 cents per point when transferred to partner airlines.

That's why seasoned travelers advise stockpiling points in these flexible programs whenever possible. 100,000 Chase points could be redeemed for $1,000 in flights when moved to United Airlines, versus just $1,250 when booking direct through the Chase travel portal. You boost your redemption value by 30% for the same number of points! Similarly, Amex runs frequent transfer bonuses of 30% or more to participating carriers.

It pays to hold both types of currencies - fixed-value miles with 1-2 of your preferred airlines, along with flexible points. This diversification allows you to take advantage of promotions on either front. For instance, Delta may run a flash award sale requiring SkyMiles, while Chase could offer a 35% transfer bonus to Singapore Airlines simultaneously.

When it comes to extracting maximum value from points and miles, advanced techniques like mixed cabin awards are useful. Booking business class international trips and economy domestic legs on the same itinerary can lower surcharges versus two separate awards. Similarly, look for "open jaw" bookings with a destination added in the middle of a roundtrip flight. You can get an extra location for the same number of miles.

No matter what points you use, always compare cash and award prices to determine the better deal. With today's proliferation of ultra low-cost carriers and fare wars, buying tickets outright is sometimes cheaper than redeeming miles. Run your dates through Mighty Travels and make sure you're getting at least 1.5 cents per mile or point before transferring balances.

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